Title: Sword Art Online: Last Recollection
Release Date: October 5, 2023
Reviewed On: PS5
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Genre: Action JRPG
The Sword Art Online video game series has steadily received entries since 2013. Although these games mirror the anime and light novel arcs, they tell an original story that dances around a few significant deaths in the series. In 2020, Sword Art Online: Alicization Lycoris was released with a ton of post-game support that added additional DLC storylines and gameplay improvements. Now, Sword Art Online: Last Recollection is here to wrap up any loose ends for a conclusion arc that brings together the entire video game cast for an epic showdown in the underworld.
From a campaign perspective, Sword Art Online: Last Recollection delivers the most traditional action JRPG experience in the series in quite some time. Unlike its predecessors, this game takes a more linear approach to level design, with most backtracking saved for the post-credits sequence. The game picks up after the events of Alicization Lycoris but also includes an original campaign that starts from the beginning of a new game. A Dark Knight named Dorothy has entered the human realm in search of peace, but to actually get there, Kirito and his friends embark on a journey to the Underworld to meet with its leaders and come to an agreement.
As an original character, Dorothy undergoes significant character development throughout the campaign. Her story is handled more effectively than Medina’s in the previous installment, where her true story only unfolded through additional DLC. However, Dorothy tends to be insecure and self-critical, doubting her ability to lead or succeed. While her past experiences explain her lack of confidence, the theme of a warrior finding self-assurance is a bit cliché at this point. One interesting aspect is how she isolates herself from the group, just in case negotiations fail and she has to fight them, though we all know Kirito’s charm can work wonders.
The main campaign took me approximately 20 hours to complete, with the story truly hitting its stride around Chapter 5. The entire experience is streamlined, making it relatively easy to progress through the game. In fact, you can advance through most areas without excessive grinding or battling challenging enemies on Normal difficulty. However, this is where I started to have some issues with the game.
The Underworld, as depicted in the game, is quite unattractive, featuring cliffs, caves, castles, more cliffs, ruins, and more caves. While this design effectively conveys the grimness of living in this world, it doesn’t make the game particularly visually appealing. The linear nature of the campaign also makes exploration rather dull, as you don’t need to explore extensively unless you’re searching for side quest items on the ground. This straightforward design extends to the fact that enemies don’t drop materials, which are mostly nonexistent in the game.
The game rewards you with new weapons and equipment, along with skill points for character progression. However, by Chapter 4, you should have most of the skills you want to master. New skills only become available when specific conditions are met, but you already have access to most of them from the beginning. This limits player customization of equipment to some extent, although you can fine-tune your AI party members’ actions. In reality, these systems don’t need much tinkering to complete the campaign. You’ll eventually come across statues that provide additional ways to customize AI partners or grant elemental powers required to solve field puzzles.
Side quests can be found in towns but are generally forgettable. They often involve defeating specific enemies or collecting lost items. I accepted them all and randomly completed them as I stumbled upon items in dungeons, but I didn’t actively seek them out.
There are a few peculiar design choices while exploring. For instance, you’ll follow a mission marker throughout an entire chapter, and suddenly, you’ll receive a main quest with a vague description of what you need to interact with to progress. It’s unclear why mission markers aren’t used for these objectives, leading to aimless running until you trigger a scene. Many of these quests involve using field action abilities, like moving dirt or navigating wind, but they have no impact on enemies, so they’re best ignored.
However, combat in Sword Art Online: Last Recollection is perhaps the best the series has ever seen. It’s evident that a significant portion of the budget and development time went into making combat feel fantastic. Attacks and combo systems are impressive, though initially, combat may seem repetitive with simple button-mashing. As you unlock new skills and learn to chain them together effectively with AI party members, combat becomes highly satisfying.
Besides perfect dodges that slow down time, allowing you to land more hits, there are ways to break enemy combos and shatter their shields for high damage output. Group attacks can also be executed, although these animations can become somewhat tiresome over time. A peculiar strategy involves chipping away at the health of strong early-game enemies. AI party members have a timed revival if they fall in battle, so you can exploit this by letting your party members take hits while you slowly whittle down the enemy’s health. I would advise against this tactic, as the rewards aren’t worth the time investment. Save these encounters for online gameplay or the endgame. Fortunately, there’s a decent fast travel system to return to previous areas. However, I didn’t like that you had to physically touch specific points to activate them.
While combat is a highlight, the overall presentation leaves much to be desired. The game suffers from pop-in issues, and the graphics are reminiscent of past PS4 releases. Although there’s more detail, it’s clear that improvements are needed, as heavy pop-in when traversing major towns is not up to par with contemporary releases. I found the character episode quests more enjoyable than the 3D animations because the character models appeared outdated.
As a reunion game, Sword Art Online: Last Recollection features an extensive roster of characters introduced across each chapter. While the main story touches on most of these characters briefly, the Chapter Episode quests provide valuable insights into the supporting cast. Even original characters from Hollow Fragment make appearances, adding a nice touch to the game. The voice acting is excellent for all characters, but the sound design occasionally misses the mark. There are moments of silence during conversations, which disrupt the flow. Some of the best acting moments occur in the final chapter, where emotions run high. The conclusion is exceptional, making the game accessible to casual fans with a Story Mode difficulty to enjoy the story.
Sword Art Online: Last Recollection takes past feedback to deliver one of the best SAO gaming entries to date. However, while making improvements, some unusual gameplay choices were made that impact the overall experience, aiming for a more straightforward approach to please fans. It successfully allows all players to experience the conclusion of this epic campaign, but the linear quests and dated exploration may make it difficult to recommend as a modern action JRPG.
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